An outdoor gathering space heralds the beginning of the Lake Highlands Town Center

As Willis Winters inspects the new park at the Lake Highlands Town Center, he makes comparisons to Lakeside Drive in Highland Park.

“This is really a first-class linear greenbelt,” says Winters, who is an authority on the topic as the Dallas Park Department’s assistant director of planning, design and construction.

The park dips behind the outline of the future Town Center, a project designed to convert roughly 70 acres at Walnut Hill and Skillman into retail, restaurant, residential and office space. The park is situated between a branch of White Rock Creek and the newly paved Watercrest Parkway curving along the property’s east edge and spanning nearly 20 acres — almost one-third of the Town Center property.

Town Center developer Prescott Realty Group fronted the $3 million bill for construction and also agreed to maintain the park from here on out, a job that currently costs about $36,000 a year. Prescott hopes to eventually be reimbursed for some or all of these costs through the Skillman Corridor Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District and the Lake Highlands Public Improvement District as development occurs on the property.

Even though Prescott maintains the park, it was deeded to the city of Dallas this spring for public use. Winters, inspired by the nearby street sign, decided to name it Watercrest Park.

To create the park, Prescott partnered with TBG, Pacheco Koch and Valley Crest — between them, they’ve worked on projects such as the NorthPark Center expansion and Town Lake Park in Austin. The design features 14 fountains, including two built into the creek branch that light up at night and “almost look like they’re shooting up like flames,” says Dave Dierkes, a Prescott director who oversaw the park construction.

Dierkes also is proud of the 102 trees saved as bulldozers leveled the apartment complexes formerly on the Town Center property. All have been replanted, and so far, Dierkes says, “only three are not going to make it.”

An outdoor amphitheater is tucked into one corner so patrons are shielded from traffic sights and sounds. The only disruption is the occasional DART train running along the other side of the creek, but that comes with the territory when the development includes a DART Rail Station.

The amphitheater isn’t big; roughly 200 to 300 people will fit comfortably on its stone benches. And its sound and lighting aren’t equipped for major productions — Dierkes says it has enough power for a guitar amplifier. He says it will be a good venue for outdoor jazz concerts or other more intimate performances. (The space can be reserved through the city’s Park Department.)

The park was designed for neighborhood use, Dierkes says, and Winters believes it will function as a neighborhood park, even without the baseball diamond or playground equipment that typically accompany these types of city parks. (Prescott does have plans to add a playground in a fenced-in area near Walnut Hill.)

On nice days, high school students can be found at the park with fishing rods in hand. Walkers, joggers and strollers already are using the trail built along the greenbelt, even though it could be two years before it connects to the larger Dallas trail network.

Someday, the park won’t be visible from Skillman. Apartments atop retail shops will have windows with views into the green space below, Dierkes says, and restaurants with patios backing up to the park will offer diners a setting amid nature.

But construction hasn’t yet begun on those portions of the Town Center. As of press time, Prescott hadn’t announced any planned retail stores or restaurants. In answer to the inevitable question of “when?”, Dierkes responds, “hopefully soon.”

“It hurts us as much as anyone,” Dierkes says. “It’s a pretty expensive piece of dirt to be sitting undeveloped.”

In the meantime, Watercrest Park is open for use. And in the words of park planning manager Michael Hellmann, “it’s the best park we’ve never built.”